The ‘shock’ of the old: Eifman’s low voltage Anna Karenina

As the saying goes “in matters of taste, there can be no disputes”.

For at least a third of the audience at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre this week their taste seemed well satisfied by the visiting Russian company, the Eifman Ballet in its production of Anna Karenina.

They stood and they stayed standing for the all too numerous curtain calls taken by the company’s founder, Boris Eifman.

Could it be that the loud, (recorded) music and the acrobatic lifts lifted the communal heart rate? Perhaps the essential drama of such a classic eternal triangle as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina?

First the concept: Eifman has reduced the story to a mĂ©nage a trois, with the three principal dancers carrying the narrative while the ensemble is there as window dressing – to portray a ballroom scene, a black-garbed group of men who looked oddly similar to Mary Poppins’s chimney sweeps in their Step in Time number, a Venetian party, and a train about to crush Anna as she leaps from above.

Secondly, the dancing: Eifman’s loyal troupe (the majority of the soloists have stayed with the company for many years) are tall, acrobatic, extremely flexible, and dynamic. Nina Zmievets, who danced the role of Anna on Wednesday, the opening night, is 30 and joined the company in 2006. Her commitment, stamina and theatricality are extraordinary.

Now comes the sad part. The choreography is clichéd, repetitive and dated. The ballet of the Eifman Ballet is not balletic in the sense that the grace, purity and spirit of classical ballet is absent.

Eifman’s ballet is based on his conception of what an audience seeks. As he describes it in the program notes: “The spectator wants to receive from a ballet performance, first of all, a catharsis, a deep emotional shock. And visiting our performances, he receives this live emotional charge”.

Eifman’s emotional shock is the equivalent of the thrill of the circus act when the trapeze artists look as though they might never make the catch and the net is nowhere to be seen. His choreography relies on acrobatic “look at me” lifts, self consciously frozen-in-time lines and shapes, skater slides and split legs. Ecstasy is represented by hands slithering down the torso. Angst is signposted by clenched fists, splayed hands, arms wrapped around the body, and the body collapsing into the floor.

Eifman’s choreography for Karenin, Anna’s husband and the archetypical man in black, is as comically melodramatic as a Victorian music hall villain. He glares, he stomps, he strides in furious anguish. Vronsky, Anna’s lover, is just as burdened but shows his despair and desire in marginally less tortured leaps, falls and turns, and arms uplifted to the heavens.

For both the soloists and the corps there’s a little too much shoulder rolling, many jumps from two legs showing one leg wriggling while still in the air, Martha Graham-esque contractions and deep plies in seconde, upside down, and one armed lifts, back rolls, slides, and the clutching of a foot in one hand while the leg rises into attitude position – as seen in ice skating competitions and rhythmic gymnastics.

We, the audience, is not encouraged to empathise, to connect. If Eifman’s Anna Karenina was a font, it would be the heavy black Braggadocio, an art deco look that shouts.

Most exasperating was the music (hardly worthy of the title ‘score’) comprising a little bit of that and a little bit of this of Tchaikovsky. The Venetian scene that opens Act 2 is danced to the fourth movement from Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 in G that George Balanchine chose for his 1947 masterpiece, Theme and Variations.

Balanchine’s work opens with the dancers demonstrating the simplicity of his favourite ballet exercise, the tendu, progresses to a tender pas de deux signifying the love and trust between a man and woman, and ends with his homage to Broadway, expressing the power of the final uplifting moments of the music.

Balanchine’s choreography of the 1940s has the power to reach the heart. For me, that’s a true emotional charge.